Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Richard Tucker. Tucker is the only great American tenor who is the equal of the greatest European tenors. America has had a number of great baritones, but among the greatest tenors Tucker is the sole American. His parents emigrated to the United State from Bessarabia in 1911. He was born in the fount of 20th century American culture – Brooklyn. His vocal gifts were apparent as a child. He sang as a cantor in several congregations before he appeared on the operatic stage. He continued to perform as a cantor throughout his career. The definitive story of his life is told in James Drake’s Richard Tucker – A Biography. He started out as Rivn (Rubin) becoming Richard later in life. His father changed the family name from Ticker to Tucker. Nevertheless, his friends and family called him Ruby throughout his life. I remember watching him hold forth in front of the stage door at the old Met for so long that his driver became impatient. “Hey Ruby, yaw (rhymes with paw) caw (Brooklynese for car and rhymes with nothing I can think of) waits.” Tucker dutifully got into the auto and departed.
Tucker developed into a full fledged spinto tenor verging on dramatic. He didn’t start out that way. He made his Met debut in 1945, but it wasn’t until the mid 50s that the full force of his spinto voice emerged. That sound persisted until his death in 1975 while he was on a concert tour with Robert Merrill. If I were to choose a tenor for a single performance on the best day of his life, I’d pick Giuseppe Di Stefano. If the choice were who was the best on recordings, the nod would go to Jussi Björling. But for the long run – an entire career – I’d go for Tucker. To fully appreciate how good he was you have to have heard him in performance. While he made substantial number of commercial recordings, that number was not as large as you would have thought given his fame and the duration of his career – 30 years at the Met alone (738 performances). There are about 70 broadcast performances in the Met’s archives as well as many others recorded live at other houses. So much of his art is preserved.
The features of Tucker’s voice were a bright tenor that was focused throughout its range and which had ping at its top. His was a very large sound which was perfectly under his control. His pitch was always dead on. His negotiation of the tenor’s passaggio was a virtual vocal masterclass. While not a great actor his voice conveyed great emotional intensity. He was nerveless and was always at the top of his game. Early in his career he was given to the Italianate sob and always hit his consonants hard. While he was at home in much of the standard Italian and French repertoire it was in Verdi that he was peerless. His spinto sound and vocal mastery made him the ideal Verdi tenor. The one exception to his conventional operatic acting was his searing portrayal of the title role in Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci.
His diction, in both English and Italian, was perfect. I played some of his Italian recordings for an Italian colleague and then asked him how Tucker’s Italian was. He said, “Great. He sounds just liked a Florentine.” The ultimate complement about someone’s Italian. Tullio Serafin asked Tucker where he learned Italian. “Brooklyn,” was the reply. Tucker’s centenary comes in the same year as the Verdi and Wagner bicentennials; predictably it’s not getting much attention. I never heard a tenor better than Tucker and only a mere handful who could be considered his equal. He is the great American Tenor.
The best way to make this case is to let him speak or rather sing for himself. In the early 1950s the Met did Cosí Fan Tutte in English. Here is Tucker’s 1952 performance of My Love is a Flower (Un’aura amorosa). Note how every word is easily understood while all the musical value is maintained. Also in English is his singing of Franz Lehár’s Dein ist mein ganzes Herz allein – Yours is My Heart Alone.
Of course, it was as an Italian tenor that Tucker received his most renown. One his most memorable portrayals was that of Don Alvaro in Verdi’s Las Forza Del Destino. Here from the 1956 Met broadcast is La vita è inferno … O tu che in seno agli angeli.- “Life is a hell to those who are unhappy….Oh, my beloved, risen among the angels.” This if followed by the Sleale duet from the third scene of the third act. The baritone in this 1965 recording is Robert Merrill who is in sensational form. The two New Yorkers are virtually perfect in one of Verdi’s most telling duets for tenor and baritone.
Tucker was at his best from about 1955 to 1968. There was some vocal deterioration thereafter though he was quite good until the very end (see below). Here are four Verdi excerpts recorded in the studio. First La mia letizia infondere…Come poteva un angelo from I Lombardi. Then Notte!… perpetua notte che qui regni!…Non maledirmi, o prode from the second act of I Due Foscari. And then Celeste Aida. He recorded the great love duet from the second act of Un Ballo in Maschera with Eileen Farrell in 1961. Teco Io Sto… Non Sai Tu
Tucker was equally at home in Puccini; in fact, he said that Des Grieux in Manon Lescaut was his favorite role. The two tenor arias from Tosca recorded in live 1957 show him at the top of his art – Recondita armonia from the first act and E lucevan le stelle from the third.
Tucker was the best Andrea Chenier I’ve ever heard. This 1957 rendition of Chenier’s Improvviso show’s his great skill with the passaggio – about F to A above middle C where the tenor voice moves from the chest to the head – those terms are metaphors rather true anatomical descriptions. It’s the failure to navigate this vocal territory successfully that can destroy a voice. This aria is centered around the passaggio and presents a great technical challenge. Tucker makes it seem easy. It’s not.
On November 16, 1961 Joan Sutherland made her Met debut as the deranged heroine in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. Richard Tucker was her Edgardo. Less than two weeks later the pair was featured on the Saturday matinee broadcast of the opera. Here is their entire duet from the first act. Sutherland Tucker Lucia 1st act
Tucker’s voice maintained its quality over the last 7 or eight years of his life. His only concession to age was taking breaths at places where he previously didn’t. He managed this very successfully so that it was not intrusive. Consider Recitar…Vesti la giubba from the 1971 production of Pagliacci at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino under the direction of the 29 year old Riccardo Muti.
Tucker had wanted to sing Eléazar in Halévy’s La Juive at the Met for most of his career. The company was about to announce that they would mount the opera for him when his death intervened. It had been the last role Caruso ever sang at the Met or anywhere else. It had not been staged at the Met since 1936 and as things turned out the company wouldn’t get around to it until 2003. Tucker did get to perform the role in New Orleans, Barcelona, and London. Here is the work’s most famous number recorded during the London run in 1973. The almost 60 year old still has plenty of voice left and gets an enormous response from the audience. Va Prononcer Ma mort…Rachel, Quand Du Seigneur
Tucker was active as a cantor throughout his life. His liturgical training greatly contributed to the marvelous vocal technique that characterized his work as well as to his remarkable vocal longevity. This recording of part of the Kol Nidre service was made relatively early in his career. It give a fine example of what cantorial singing is like especially when it’s sung by a master.
Tucker sang Don Jose in Carmen during all of his career. Between 1952 and 1972 he sang it 60 times at the Met. It was the last opera he appeared in. This performance of the Flower Song was recorded in Barcelona on December 25, 1974, 14 days before his death in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He died in his hotel room while on a concert tour with Robert Merrill. The cause of death was certainly due to heart disease. He suffered a heart attack in 1962 which he kept hidden from the public. His funeral was held at the Metropolitan Opera House which was fitting given that this theater was the focus of his artistic life. His was the only funeral that has ever been observed at the Met.
Richard Tucker was the Met’s house tenor for 30 years. This puts him in the company of Enrico Caruso, Beniamino Gigli, and Giovanni Martinelli who occupied the same unofficial position before him. He sang so often at the Met that it was easy to take his presence for granted; he seemed always there. His loss revealed how large a force he had been. Comparisons here are pointless. All that need be said about Richard Tucker was that he was one of opera’s supremely gifted performers. An enduring legacy is the Richard Tucker Music Foundation. The Richard Tucker Music Foundation, founded in 1975, is a non-profit cultural organization which honors the artistic legacy of the great American tenor through support of talented American opera singers and by bringing opera into the community.